Chicago: From Stacker of Wheat to Stacker of Wheat Thins!

Mayor Brandon Johnson should remember the sorry history of state-run supermarkets.


The poet Carl Sandburg must be spinning in his grave. In his 1914 masterpiece, "Chicago," he wrote lovingly of his adopted hometown, which was then booming in population and national significance:

Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning….

Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

That was then. Now the leader of what Sandburg called the "City of the Big Shoulders" is threatening "to work on a pathway toward opening a city-owned grocery store." From Stacker of Wheat to Stacker of Wheat Thins! 

This is not progress, it's decline, and on an epically confused scale. If the wide sweep of the past century or so made anything clear, it's that governments at all levels really don't need to be involved in the provision of basic goods and services, whether we're talking about food, airlines, utilities, communications, garbage hauling, health care, taxis, or even a post office (when, in the internet age, is the last time you actually visited that museum of dead letters?). We don't even need the government to get into space anymore! Yet Chicago's government needs to get in the grocery biz? 

It just doesn't compute, especially when you consider the actual experience of state-run supermarkets, which was dismal at best, and disastrous at worst, as stores in the old Soviet Union would stock caviar but fail to provide basic staples. As the Cato Institute's Scott Lincicome reminded us, last week was the 34th anniversary of Boris Yeltsin's famous visit to a Texas supermarket in 1989 after checking out NASA's control center in Houston. Yeltsin would later preside over the end of the Soviet Union but at that point, he was a proud, newly elected member of the Supreme Soviet.

Yet he was simply gobsmacked by the sheer abundance and variety of stuff on the shelves, so much so that told his aides, "We have committed a crime against our people by making their standard of living so incomparably lower than that of the Americans." One of his aides said "the last vestige of Bolshevism collapsed" in Yeltsin as a result. As winter draws near, Windy City residents can comfort themselves by remembering that history repeats itself, first as a tragedy, second as a farce.

"All Chicagoans deserve to live near convenient, affordable, healthy grocery options," said Mayor Brandon Johnson in a statement. "A better, stronger, safer future is one where our youth and our communities have access to the tools and resources they need to thrive. My administration is committed to advancing innovative, whole-of-government approaches to address these inequities. I am proud to work alongside partners to take this step in envisioning what a municipally owned grocery store in Chicago could look like."

Somehow, a city that cannot keep its residents from moving, protect the ones who stay, or educate its children will succeed in a business as difficult as the supermarket game. Somehow, a government synonymous with corruption—"more than three dozen Chicago aldermen have been indicted by federal grand juries over the past 50 years"—will thrive in a business environment that sent Walmart, Whole Foods, and Aldi, among other chains, packing.

The chief reasons major retailers have left Chicago are things city governments seek to control in favor of their constituents: crime, taxes, and regulations. Yet, as the Chicago Sun-Times reported this summer, the city has failed at those basic tasks:

Grocery operators have pointed to crime and homelessness as reasons they've needed to invest more in security, driving up costs, according to Amanda Lai, a Chicago director of food industry practice for the consulting firm McMillanDoolittle. These grocers also deal with hefty overhead costs in cities.

According to the market-friendly Illinois Policy Institute, Chicago also boasts the second-highest commercial property taxes in the country and the second-highest combined state-and-local sales taxes, neither of which make the city a place likely to draw and keep businesses, especially when combined with population decline and hikes in crime.

But focusing on traditional functions of government such as the protection of individuals and property, and the maintenance of infrastructure and a functional business climate just isn't sexy, especially for a mayor who rose to office on the shoulders of public-sector unions and has called for squeezing $800 million out of the "suburbs, airlines, and ultra-rich" in new taxes. As Reason's Matt Welch noted earlier this year, Mayor Johnson doesn't have to worry about partisanship, either, as the "Windy City has been run by Democratic mayors for 93 consecutive years. The 50-member City Council currently includes zero Republicans. The Cook County Board of Commissioners has 17 seats; 16 are filled by Democrats." By minimizing political backlash, one-party rule tends to insulate politicians from popular outrage. If you can win and keep your party's nomination, you're good as gold, and that's often a function of appealing to small but powerful special interests.

Rather than expanding the functions of government, Johnson and other leaders of failing jurisdictions should be looking to reduce what they do by increasing the efficiency with which they deliver core services. They would do well to model themselves on someone like Mitch Daniels, the former two-term governor of Indiana who recently retired after a highly successful run as the president of Purdue University (where he froze tuition, increased the endowment, and upped the reputation of the institution).

As governor, Daniels used what he called the Yellow Pages test: "If a good or service had multiple providers listed in the business section of the telephone directory, the government shouldn't be doing it." It makes obvious sense to pare back your commitments, especially if you're already failing at your core functions. But it doesn't make political sense, especially when every increase in the size, scope, and spending of government gives you more power to reward your friends with jobs, contracts, and status.

If there's a silver lining to Mayor Johnson's ridiculous proposal, it's that it sounds more like vaporware than a hardcore commitment. As the Chicago Tribune notes, "The first step will be to perform a feasibility study, though the city did not provide a timeline." In true bureaucratic fashion, things will take a long time to even get postponed indefinitely.

In the meantime, Chicago will likely continue its long decline (it's barely maintaining its status as the country's third-largest city), making a mockery of Carl Sandburg's fading vision of it as 

Hog Butcher for the World,

   Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,

   Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;

   Stormy, husky, brawling,

   City of the Big Shoulders